First published in May 2016

Once upon a time in India, about 850 years ago, there lived a wise mathematician called Bhaskaracharya II.  This is the tale of his intelligent daughter Lilavati. She was as gifted in beauty as in brains.

Bhaskaracharya was a favourite of the king for his ability to weave mathematical riddles and used to be called to the King’s palace very often. Hence, Lilavati spent her time playing with her friends at the palace and assisting her father in his gurukul, where he taught children the secrets of numbers and stars. Her favourite place was the observatory her father had built to gaze into the depths of space.

She loved mathematics just like her father. It helped her make sense of the world. She could not always understand people and why they said things they did not even mean, but numbers always made sense to her. Even if she came across a difficult math problem, she knew if she just kept working at it long enough, she would find a solution in the end.

She asked her father many questions and he always took the time to answer. In this way she learnt a lot from him. Soon, Lilavati grew from an inquisitive little girl to an accomplished young woman.

Her father had seen her horoscope and grew worried because it said she would remain unmarried and childless forever. To avoid this fate, he found an auspicious time for his daughter’s marriage and built a water-clock to alert her at the correct time.

Soon enough, it was the day of the wedding and Lilavati was dressed up in a rich, red saree and decorated with bright, shining jewels. In her curiosity, as soon as she was ready, she ran to see how the water clock worked. A pearl from her dress fell into the water clock and it no longer showed the correct time.

The auspicious time for her marriage passed and now she could never be married again. She ran to the observatory, her special place, to gaze at the stars and make sense of what had just happened.

While she sat there, utterly sad, her father climbed up the stairs of the observatory and sat down beside her. “Don’t worry, my sweet child”, he said. “I shall write a book named after you. It shall be the greatest book on mathematics the world has ever seen. You shall always be remembered through it. The gods have something greater in store for you than just marriage! Come, now. Help me teach my pupils.”

Lilavati smiled. Her father always knew just the right thing to say. She kept teaching her father’s students math and astronomy and soon became so renowned that she even got her own gurukul. She had found happiness in her own world surrounded by numbers and students who adored her. She became medieval India’s most famous woman mathematician and is still remembered to this day.

Word meanings:

  • Observatory – a building designed to observe the stars
  • Horoscope – a prediction of someone’s future based on the positions of the planets
  • Inquisitive – showing curiosity
Lilavati: The mathematician
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